By Christine Darg
“I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him.” (Psalm 89:20)
When I read 2 Kings 9: 3, “Pour the oil on his head and declare, ‘This is what the LORD says: I anoint you king over Israel,'” immediately this verse reminded me of Mary of Bethany’s prophetic action when she poured a costly ointment upon Yeshua’s head.
Mary was the only disciple who had intuition to anoint Jesus, King Messiah. The following is my Bible study on this amazing action by a woman in the New Testament:
“She hath wrought a good work upon Me…in pouring this ointment upon My body she did it for My burial…wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached…that also which this woman hath done shall be told for a memorial of her.” (Matthew 26: 10-13)
Various Scriptural references to kings being consecrated and anointed with oil in the Hebrew Bible are found, for example, in 1 Samuel 10:1; 16:1; 1Kings 1:39; 19: 15-16; 2 Kings 9:3; and Psalm 89:20.
Jesus, great David’s greater Son, the Christ (Mashiach), meaning “Anointed One,” was also anointed King of Israel! And by a woman! The Gospels continually amaze us by their impartial recording of truths so contrary to the times.
Amazingly, the human agent was a woman who by virtue of her actions proved herself to be a prophetess. Mary outpoured the purest of spikenard worth a year’s wages. The biblical spikenard, or nard, was a costly aromatic ointment, preserved in alabaster jars.
Extravagantly and quite dramatically, the daring woman broke the seal and emptied the entire contents of the jar upon the Lord’s head and feet.
Imagine for a moment what a bold act that was!
And she was not reprimanded by Jesus for this dramatic act, but on the contrary, she ministered deeply to the Lord on a level that nobody else had understood or dared to do. Furthermore, she was commended by Yeshua in such a way that all of her detractors were silenced.
How profoundly deep is this episode in the Gospels!
Jesus said the Anointing would be a memorial for her wherever the Gospel is preached. Most artists and theologians attribute the act to Mary Magdalene, yet the Gospel of John clearly identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany. Could the Anointer have possibly been one and the same person? Could Mary of Bethany have become Mary Magdalene?
Let’s examine the account in Mark 14: 3-10:
3And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head.
4And there were some that had indignation within themselves, and said, Why was this waste of the ointment made?
5For it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her.
6And Jesus said, Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me.
7For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always.
8She hath done what she could: she is come aforehand to anoint my body to the burying.
9Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.
10And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.
The Anointing of Jesus is a story of costly sacrifice as well as a prophetic act of sheer love, but it is so much more! In Richard Bauckham’s scholarly book, “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” this holy anointing is described as a prophetic act for the actual anointing ceremony of King Messiah.
How amazingly revolutionary that a woman was ordained, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to perform this important action to anoint the Anonted One, the King of Kings! When Jesus noted that Mary’s deed would be remembered as a “memorial of her,” he honoured and elevated this woman for time and eternity in a way similar to and reminiscent of his own Mother’s prophetic words in the Magnificat, “Herenceforth all generations shall called me blessed.” (Luke 1:48)
Only the Gospel of John identifies the anointer as Mary of Bethany. John 12: 2-3 makes note that she was Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, thus pinpointing her precisely as that disciple, Mary of Bethany, who had sat at Jesus’s feet, absorbing his teachings. She had, in fact, been acknowledged by the Lord as a disciple: “Now Martha who was distracted with all the serving said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself? Please, tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered: ‘Martha, Martha, you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one. It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it shall not be taken from her.’” (Luke 10: 40-42)
This text discloses Mary to be the first female disciple, the one who could have been the very same as Mary Magdalene, who exclaimed to the Risen Lord, “Rabboni, My Teacher!” I have often mused upon Mary of Bethany’s seeming absence during the Passion events. In fact, I cannot imagine the devoted Mary of Bethany not being a part of the Passion scenes. But if she was, in fact, also surnamed Magdalene during her discipleship, she would be, of course, devotedly present, both at the Cross and at the tomb. While John calls her “Mary Magdalen” in 19:25, 20:1, and 20:18, he calls her simply “Mary” in 20:11 and 20:16. We will return to that thought momentarily, but first, let’s go back to the amazing and unorthodox anointing ceremony…..
According to Bauckham, a number of scholars have interpreted Mary’s anointing of the Messiah (“Anointed One”) as “comparable with the anointing of the kings in the Hebrew Bible. The woman is acknowledging or even designating Jesus as the royal Messiah. . . .There is no reason in the text why she should not have planned it in association with others, who may have thought it best to take Jesus by surprise and so encourage him to undertake the messianic role about which he may have seemed to them very ambivalent. . . . the woman’s action could easily be perceived by others as of messianic significance. Admittedly it would no doubt be very surprising for the Messiah to be anointed by a woman, but she might have been seen in the role of a prophet, like Samuel, inspired by God to recognize and designate his Anointed One (cf. 1 Sam 16: 1-13).” (Emphasis mine)
The messianic significance of the anointing would have certainly been clear to the Gospel writer’s original audience or readers. Bauckham pointed out that the messianic significance of anointing a king is “not explicit in Mark’s text” and that the anointing of the head in a banquet was a common festal custom. However, he added, the “messianic significance is not self-evident but dependent on the context. . . what happens in the story is that Jesus recognizes the messianic significance of the anointing but interprets it according to his own understanding of the messianic vocation as entailing suffering and death. Mark’s apparent strategy of leaving the messianic significance for them to perceive, rather than highlighting it himself, coheres rather strikingly with the strategy of ‘protective anonymity–’” because of the danger in Jerusalem of identification with the sect of the Nazarenes.
The Gospel of John dates the anointing of Jesus by Mary at the beginning of the Passion Week, before His entry into Jerusalem (John12: 12-19). And thus Jesus is anointed as the Messiah in Bethany before riding into Jerusalem on a donkey as the Anointed Messiah the following day. St. Mark, on the other hand, in his narrative, as Bauckham observes, “sandwiches the anointing between the plotting of the Jewish authorities in order to link this anointing within this particular context.” So in Mark’s non-chronological account, the Bethany anointing was related to Judas’s betrayal. The possible relaying of such seditious information as the Anointing to Temple authorities could have only furthered suspicions against Jesus as a revolutionary king. John’s timeline was accurate but Mark was also correct in arranging his material to order to account for another very real motive for their jealousy of Jesus…that He had, in fact, been anointed as King.
As an especially devoted disciple, Mary must have been disappointed by the unrequited love and lack of response to Jesus by Israel’s religious elite. Interestingly, Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts specifically describe the woman as anointing Jesus’ head. John’s and Luke’s accounts obscure the messianic significance by emphasizing that Mary anointed Jesus’s feet and then wiped his feet with her hair. All four Gospels are correct depictions of the same scene; but all emphasize different aspects of this amazing scene, in the same way that all of us would have reported different observations if we had been present.
Matthew and Mark focus upon the kingly anointing (upon the head), as if were– the anointing of Messiah Ben David. John emphasizes the servant role of the Messiah, as it were, Messiah Ben Josef— the Servant King– whose feet were pierced as part of the Atonement on the Cross. The Gospel of John, Bauchkham noted, “has nevertheless preserved its messianic significant by placing [the anointing] in immediate connection with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem.”
Because of the intimate (and some would say unseemly) act of wiping Jesus’s feet with her loosened hair and references to her sinfulness, the Anointing in Luke’s Gospel has been associated with Mary Magdalene. The association is made because she was perceived to have been a loose woman, although the Gospel accounts never specify that she was a prostitute.
Some scholars believe the story in Luke of the woman washing the feet of Jesus with her tears and kissing his feet was a separate incident from the Anointing in the other Gospels. However, in “The Alabaster Jar,” author Sr. Theresia Saers suggests that the Lukan account was not a separate incident but that Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene were one and the same person. After all, it should be carefully noted that both recorded incidents took place in the house of a man named Simon. Saers argues that the story is too unusual for it to have been two different women upon two different occasions. Saers points out that although the Magdalene has always received credit for this act, John’s Gospel clearly identifies the anointer as Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha of Bethany. Therefore, Saers definitely believes they are one and the same.
Why is Mary of Bethany named in the Gospel of John as the anointer of Jesus but not named in the three synoptic Gospels as the anointer? Although the identity of the anointer would have been well-known amongst the early believers because of her unusual and bold act, Bauckham claims her name was cautiously protected by the synoptic Gospel writers from being associated with the messianic sect. The life of her brother Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead by Jesus, was also threatened, and for that reason the raising of Lazarus is absent in the synoptic Gospels due to this caution of anonymity: “the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.” (John 12:10-11) Since the Gospel of John was written later when some of the main disciples, such as the Apostle Peter, were already dead, Mary and Lazarus could be named in his Gospel without concern for retribution. Could a second identity of Mary of Bethany as “the Magdalene” have been a protection?
Saers suggests that Mary of Bethany was among the group of women who followed Jesus and who supported his band of disciples from their substance and that while she resided in Galilee she adopted the Magdalene surname, perhaps as a protection, perhaps as a re-invention of herself, or perhaps it was given as a nickname. Furthermore Saers points out that “the Magadene” of Galilee could have been a derogatory reference at times, because she was perceived as an outcast by religious authorities and was stigmatized for having been exorcised of seven devils.
Each of us has many brandings and titles. For example, sometimes I am called “the Christine in Jerusalem,” although I am also associated with the country of my birth (USA) or with Britain (I’m a subject of Her Majesty the Queen), but also I am the wife of Peter and the mother of David and Daniel. Saers also points out that in Matthew 28:1, Mary of Clopas who stood at the Cross is described as “the other Mary” to distinguish her from Mary Magdalene, meaning that there were basically two disciples of Jesus named Mary. We know for a fact that Mary of Bethany was a definite disciple who had sat at the feet of Jesus (an Hebraic expression of discipleship, as in the reference in the Book of Acts to Paul sitting at the feet of Rabbi Gamaliel). So the deduction is that Mary of Bethany was most likely the Magdalene. [Mary of Clopas was the sister-in-law of Mary of Nazareth, Jesus’ Mother].
One of the many reasons why Jesus was scandalized in the eyes of the religious leaders was his unorthodox inclusive attitude toward women: According to Saers, he was “A king, who has in his retinue a woman like Mary the Magdalene and Joanna, who actually belongs to the court of unclean King Herod? Women should stay at home, looking after their husbands and children, not pretend to have knowledge of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus, however, never daunted, just carries on with what he has chosen to do. So do the women. Mary Magdalen appears to have become their leader, because the evangelists all mention her first, when referring to the female followers of Jesus.”
In God’s providence and orderings, why was the Lord anointed King in Bethany? One of the meanings of the name of the village is “house of affliction.” Indeed, affliction is what the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 was all about: “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.” (Isaiah 53:4)
Furthermore, I offer this commentary from personal observations: Many times I have been caught up in the Spirit to perform prophetic acts. True prophetic acts are never manufactured—they just happen spontaneously in God’s orderings and by direction of the Holy Spirit. Mary probably did not orchestrate beforehand in her mind how this act of adoration and consecration would unfold. She perhaps began rather tentatively to pour the oil first upon the Lord’s head [as depicted in the artwork above]. But as she perceived His receptivity to her “chutzpah,” she was no doubt overcome with gratitude, love and emotion, and fell at his feet in abject humility, weeping, continuing to pour the nard, and unburdening a great desire to honor Him.
When we combine all of the eye-witness accounts of the Anointing, we learn that it started with a pouring upon His head and flowed down and was furthermore poured onto His feet, mingled with Mary’s tears and wiped with her hair. This act is reminiscent of Psalm 133 of the anointing of the High Priest flowing from the top of the head to the hem of the garment. The anointing did not touch the flesh of Aaron but it did touch the very Body of Yeshua. . . to anoint Him for many prophetic purposes, including kingship and burial. The fragrance, no doubt, remained for days and was perhaps a comfort during His Passion, because, as I heard one preacher say, “somebody had loved him enough to sacrifice their very best.”
Because Mary had chosen the “better part” to listen to the words of our Lord, unlike her sister Martha who was too busy with the cares of this world, Mary was in tune with prophetic events. Because she had learned carefully sitting at Yeshua’s feet, she had been prepared not to miss the kairos moment to anoint the King of Kings. What an honor!
Perhaps she had purchased the alabaster jar specifically for this act and had waited for the right moment.
Perhaps she could no longer tolerate the religious authorities’ misunderstandings and disparagings of Jesus– and even His own disciples were befuddled as to His mission.
Perhaps it was a sheer flash of inspiration! The spikenard that some women kept as part of their treasure trouve would do marvellously for her master, her rabbi, and the Bridegroom of her soul! It was an inspired idea! Mary acted under the impulse of the Spirit of God, and because of unconditional love! It was a moment of revelation for all eternity.
Her example is also echoed in our Lord’s similar great act of humility when he took bowl and towel and washed his disciples’ feet at his Last Passover Supper.
King David was anointed by Samuel but had to endure much contradiction and the passing of time for the prophecy to be fulfilled. King Yeshua was anointed in Bethany and although the wait has been long, He will soon return as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords!
Truly wherever this Gospel is preached, Mary’s outpouring of love and devotion is a memorial because she anointed Yeshua for the ultimate Atonement –the gift that keeps on giving!
Prayer: Heavenly Father, we rejoice that you enabled and honoured a disciple with the privilege of anointing King Messiah not only for burial but for his entry as King into Jerusalem. It was an important act that confirmed many thoughts in the heart of our Lord and that was surely a comfort in His Sufferings. Thank you for this comfort and honour that you poured upon your Son through your humble prophetess. We memorialize our sister Mary and thank you for her great and bold example. What an exploit of love she accomplished not only to anoint our Lord’s head but to kiss and anoint His feet with spikenard mingled with tears! We also thank you that although we are often misunderstood by those we love, yet you send close friends who know how to encourage us along the way with their priceless love, gifts and tears! And so we thank You that as we anoint and honour our brothers and sisters, the poor, the lonely, the suffering, the dying, we enter into this ongoing outpouring. Help us truly to break our alabaster jars to pour forth your anointing as fresh oil upon this generation. In Yeshua’s Name and for His sake we pray, Amen and Amen!
© Christine Darg, Exploits Ministry